On Sept. 1, as we celebrate Forest Park’s 100th anniversary, those of us over 40 can experience a bit of musical magic, courtesy of Cliff Johnson and Off Broadway.
Johnson, now a Forest Park resident, spent his high school years at OPRF fronting The Rising Suns. In the ’70s he established himself as a major presence on the Chicago and Midwest rock scene, first with Pez Band, then d’Thumbs and finally Off Broadway.
Off Broadway’s first hit, “Full Moon Turn My Head Around,” was a full blown paean to youth and the sexual and social alchemy of summer nights.
“When the moon is full a boy like me can definitely loose his head,” he sang.
It was also a proud statement that they’d arrived.
“We got a beat, we got good, good beat, we got a good beat.
We got a band, we got a good, good band, we got a good band.
We got a beat, we got a U.S. beat, we got a good beat.”
Performing with Pez Band in the spring of 1972 at Unity Temple in Oak Park, Johnson looked a little like Robert Plant’s precocious kid brother. Equal parts crooner and rock ‘n’ roll, Johnson was a musical natural who clearly loved singing out front of a group of equally talented musicians like friend Mimi Betinis.
Seven years later Johnson and Off Broadway landed a deal with Atlantic Records, and in 1980 released a gem of a pop rock album, “ON!” The disc was eagerly anticipated here, and sold more than 300,000 copies in the Chicago area.
Unfortunately, the band never made the national splash they and their fans here hoped for. But they produced a second album, “Quick Turns,” and a number of absolute pop classics-penned by Johnson-including “Full Moon,” “Stay In Time,” “Automatic,” “Bad Indication,” “Bully, Bully” and “U.S. Girls.”
Now in their 50s, Off Broadway’s raw Dionysian energy has been replaced by a more controlled combustion. Time has aged them, but it hasn’t extinguished the fire inside, one still fueled by passion and talent.
As David Bowie wrote, “one of these days, you’re gonna get older.”
Seven years ago rock lifer Mike Redmond, another Forest Park resident, helped put Off Broadway back on track and back on stage, with Kenny Harck, a drummer’s drummer, veteran Mike Gorman, who played with Pez Band before helping form Off Broadway, and original guitarist Rob Harding. And, of course, Johnson, who can still wrap his unique voice around the notes of a song like few others.
Recently, Off Broadway added a number of classic ’60s songs to their live show list, a move that’s revitalized the band. It’s one thing to listen to “Shapes of Things” by the Yard Birds, on record, quite another to watch the Off Broadway boys unfurl it like a musical banner onstage. Off Broadway’s live performances are less memories of things past than evidence that rock ‘n’ roll really will never die, if your heart’s still in it.
“Looking back, all I ever wanted was to go to school,
And get a rockin’ band, playing all the dances would be really cool.”
It sure was, guys. Still is.